The January 1, 2013 proclamation of the Safety and Health at Work Act eight years after it was passed in Parliament was not greeted with the pomp and ceremony that one would expect for such a significant piece of legislation.
However, its passing set a precedent that would require private sector companies, government ministries, all academic institutions and any health care facility, to either develop or amend any existing policy to meet the requirements as stipulated in the act.
But anyone reviewing many of the existing safety and health policies in the past three months would see that there is an alarming disparity in content and effectiveness; suggesting to the reviewer that the majority of these policies requires a complete rewrite of the existing policy in many cases.
In other instances, many companies will now need to introduce a written policy because the purported policy was either verbal or conceptual and therefore, due to a lack of documentation, lacked a signature by management, denoting implementation of such a policy, and a signature of acceptance by the worker.
This singular lack of signatures renders the OSH policy incapable of being enforced. The reason for the introduction of a written policy is that both the employer and the employee need to agree to a structured safety and health programme, which includes training and administrative operational procedures that will guide, and where appropriate, implement penalties for any infraction of the safety and health policies of the company.
According to the act, penalties can be invoked where infractions are evident. However, these are all avoidable situations. The Factories Act and the Public Health Act have long been the tools by which many companies used as a guide for establishing safety and health policies and procedures for their employees.
The use of these two acts required legal interpretation resulting in some cases the introduction of convoluted policies, which according to some managers, created cumbersome administrative procedures for employees to follow and managers to enforce. However, the introduction of this act does not excuse the careless actions on the part of the employee, or the employer’s low prioritisation of a comprehensive safety and health programme in favour of the economic profitability of the company.
It also does not excuse Government for its own archaic safety and health programme within its ministries and institutions. In fact, Government critics have publicly commented on its lack-lustre safety and health record including, and it’s seemingly disregard to the safety and health needs of public sector employees.
One fundamental component of any safety and health programme will be its ability to reduce the careless actions that contribute to worker injuries on the job. Carelessness on the job is statistically one of the most significant factors that is recorded in an accident report.
Simple acts, such as not wearing safety goggles for eye protection; incorrect use of safety helmets, or the wearing of baseball caps under the helmet. One worker, who had complained that the helmet increased the heat on his head, drilled a series of holes into the helmet, declaring that the holes allowed for “more air to pass through”, the worker’s head was now receiving cool air but the helmet was now completely ineffective as safety wear.
Another worker, who stated that the safety goggles did not reduce enough of the sun’s glare or heat, folded a cardboard box into headwear that was then merged with the baseball cap and safety helmet, to create a “glare and heat reducer; which according to the worker was “most effective”. However, the worker’s peripheral vision was now reduced to a similar area as that of a racehorse wearing “blinders”.
Deliberate worker carelessness includes incorrect footwear while working on a construction site — workers have been observed wearing sandals and rubber slippers while on rooftops and climbing scaffolding.
Social scientists have suggested that carelessness may be cultural in development. They have surmised, that there may not have been a comprehensive safety and health culture within the employee’s society, and that it may extend to the employer as well.
One theory suggests that the concept of safety and health originally only extended to disciplined work places, such as the military, law enforcement, fire services, and health care institutions such as hospitals. It further suggests that this, therefore, has unwittingly contributed to a behavior now seen as careless actions on the part of the worker when on the job; and the employer’s apparent low prioritisation of implementing safety policies in the workplace.
Social scientists suggest that this behaviour also extends to careless acts in the home to include the overloading of a single electrical outlet due to the convenience of its location; standing on the window ledge to paint the outside of the same window frame, rather than use a ladder. Climbing the same ladder placed on uneven terrain without any assistance from friends or family, which subsequently shifts in place while climbing, throwing the climber to the ground and a rushed visit to the hospital.
Careless acts are witnessed every day all across this island on nearly all job sites. These acts in the majority of instances usually precipitate rushed visits to family doctors or the hospital’s emergency room, where the injuries range from scrapes, bruises, lacerations, broken bones, fractured ribs, burns, severed limbs, temporary or permanent blindness, or in extreme cases, death.
One example of what could be interpreted as a low priority safety measure, was witnessed where a team of window washers were working on a hydraulic platform positioned on the side of a ten story building. Close examination of the team revealed that the persons on the platform were not wearing any type of “Fall Arrest or Safety Harness” independently attached to the building as a personal protective precaution in case there was a hydraulic failure with the platform.
Examination also revealed casual dress as work clothes, including footwear. The question must therefore be asked: Is this lack of safety equipment not used by the team, the result of the workers refusal or careless behaviour on their part, or the company’s apparent casual concern regarding their responsibility to ensure worker safety regardless of the job type or location?
Do private and public sector employers correctly interpret the act as it relates to their individual responsibility to ensuring maximum worker safety and health in the workplace? Is there an aggressive policy in the private and public sector that promotes a safety and health culture that neutralises wherever possible, the careless acts committed by employees and aggressively encourages cultural change at the executive level, on the importance of safety and health in the workplace?
This paper has published over 18 columns in the past two years addressing this issue. On each occasion, our conclusions have been the same — there is need for the reduction of lip service to worker safety and health practices in the workplace; less rhetoric on the part of the political directorate, and more tangible examples of change in safety and health policies, practices, and enforcement of penalties when there is evidence of deliberate circumvention of the policies of the by the worker.
Will positive change and tangible actions only occur when there is a permanent physical injury that renders the worker a paraplegic; or death of a worker due to the continuing disregard of the contents of the act? Will employers and workers continue this path of “only providing a response” when there is a pending law suit that threatens to drive a business in to bankruptcy, or when unions threaten general strikes due to government’s lip service and apparent inaction to implement change?